iPad 2: not much, but more than enough?

There are lots of reports today that the iPad 2 is in production and will be officially announced and in US stores soon (although the signs are that the UK will have to wait a couple of months, just as we did for the launch of the original iPad.)

Now the iPad 2 story has been picked to death by news outlets and tech blogs almost since the day after the original iPad was released, and frankly I’m sick to death of speculation about what it might or might not contain in the way of new features. It used to be accepted in computing that however long you waited, however wise you were in selecting a PC to buy, it didn’t matter: it would still be out of date the day after you finally put down the money. These days it’s even worse: the speculation about new products (and particularly Apple products) is so incessant that the product feels old hat and is yesterday’s news some six months before it even exists.

Hence now, as the iPad 2 launch finally grows near, we’re seeing stories like ReadWriteWeb’s “iPad 2.0: Can Faster, Thinner, Lighter Compete with Android Tablets?” which are taking the “oh – is that it? Is there no more?” line of disappointment.

To recap the story (which itself is similar to hundreds of others about iPad 2), it seems that – as the headline states – the new iPad will be faster, lighter and thinner; and that it will gain at least one front-facing camera for use with Apple’s Facetime video conferencing software. And, err, that’s about it. It might have slightly improved screen resolution, but it won’t be anything of the order of an upgrade to the stunning Retina-level display debuted on the iPhone 4 last July.

As the ReadWriteWeb article asks, “Where is the “wow” factor, though?” The reality has been thoroughly eclipsed by the wild speculation online for the last six months, which has been so overheated that frankly an iPad 2 that doesn’t boast artificial intelligence, come with a free jetpack and hovercar, and is altogether more capable than you are of running your life and pleasuring your partner is just going to be a bit of a damp squib.

But then, what do Apple really need to do with the iPad to make the follow-up sell like hot cakes? The answer, ironically, is: as little as possible.

A lot of people I know were very interested in the iPad when it launched last year, played with it in the Apple Store – but pointedly held off buying. “I’ll wait for the second generation model”, I heard time and again. I’m going to dub this “the Windows Mindset”, because I think it stems from peoples’ experiences with previous Windows products where the first release of anything (including some versions of Windows itself) has all too often been shockingly poor and bug-ridden, ill-developed and barely good enough to be labelled a work-in-progress.

No one in their right minds gets the first gen version of such flawed products, waiting instead for the second gen when the problems are all worked out. That way, they gain some extra, new features in the process and possibly a lower price to boot. (However, anyone holding off the original iPad expecting prices to go down over time doesn’t know Apple at all: the company sees itself as a premium product retailer and doesn’t discount or drop prices, until a given model stops being at the “top” of the line and is downgraded to a budget position while a new model takes up the top price spot.)

But I think with Apple, that “Windows Mindset” is irrelevant. Apple’s products these days seem to be good to go and pretty much flawless from the very first generation. Even the very first iPhone remains serviceable and problem-free to this day, and my own iPhone 3G (the second gen) is absolutely perfect for my needs despite its relative age. In fact, strangely enough it’s not the older iPhones that have been problematic but the most recent iPhone 4 that’s had all the issues and which I still wouldn’t personally buy as a result.

As far as I’m concerned, Apple certainly nailed the iPad concept right from the start, but then they had to – failing to make the iPad a huge hit from its very start would have killed the entire tablet concept stone dead and left the company with a Newton-shaped hole in their accounts. The iPad had to be perfect and glitch-free from the get-go, and … It was. (There were a few early software issues with wifi connectivity at the start but these were quickly fixed; I’m not aware of any hardware problems in the range whatsoever.) Compare that to the other manufacturers like Samsung or those using the Android OS who are having to scramble to get into the market after the iPad’s success, and who have ended up fielding typical flawed first gen tablets in line with the “Windows Mindset”.

So those people who held off on getting the original iPad because of potential flaws have been thwarted – they could have bought nine months ago with peace of mind, it turns out. The only thing now that stops them from buying is the fact that the first generation is genuinely approaching end of life as a premium product, and the iPad 2 is nigh. Who wants something that looks so 2010 when the 2011 model is upon us? In other words: Apple could pretty much bring out the same product again, whack a ‘2’ on it in white correction fluid, and they’d still unlock that huge potential market of people who have been waiting for months and kicking themselves for their caution.

Given that Apple really doesn’t have to do that much to get the delayed first-time purchasers and the eager second-time upgraders to shell out their cash for any new model they put out, it’s no wonder that they’re sticking with pretty much low-key tinkering around the edges: “thinner and lighter” addresses one of the few criticisms of the original iPad made last year; “faster” is mandatory for any new computer product. And the camera is really only there because Apple are pushing Facetime as an international standard in order to dominate the video conferencing market; it’s already on the latest iPhone and iPod Touch, and also available on the Mac computer ranges, so it’s important for the growth of Facetime that iPad users now swell the ranks. Hence the camera addition – it’s about Apple’s ambitions for Facetime, not about the iPad.

But beyond that, why should Apple do any more? For one thing, it presumably leaves them with more ideas and potential left over that they can start planning to add to the functionality of iPad 3, rumours about which you should be able to start reading within minutes of iPad 2 going on sale. (I sometimes think that Apple use the internet blogs and forum speculation as a useful arm of their R&D department to generate new ideas to pursue – in which case, if they do, good on them. Listening to customers and delivering at and above their expectations is what makes a successful company.) For another, if any iPad 2 is already likely to be a sell-out, then why even try and over-excite demand when there is no hope of the supply chain being able to meet it for months to come? You’ll only frustrate potential buyers and possibly drive them into the arms of other manufacturers that way.

Another reason for not wanting to fiddle with the iPad too much at this point is that sticking with the basic model and just tinkering around the edges will exude an overwhelming confidence in the product: “Yes, it’s so good, why mess with it? It’s a winner, tried and tested and proven, all but perfect – come on in, the water’s fine.” It’s reassuring to potential buyers to see a manufacturer serene and confident in their product to the point of smugness, whereas too much tinkering can give the impression of insecurity, of basic problems, or just that any buyer is going to find their purchase out of date in five seconds because of the latest tweak.

In fact Apple’s only potential problem is if they really can’t actually think of any way of improving it in the future, if they can’t think of any more features to add to later iPad models. And the creative well does go dry at times, even for Apple. The development of iPod range, for example, is looking like being reduced to shuffling round the colours and bumping up the memory chips because there’s not much else you can do to them now; the iPhone 4 also lacked any big new ideas and indeed many of its well-publicised problems (antenna-gate; the failure-to-fly of the white model; problems with the all-glass case) seem to be the result of having to push things too far, too soon just to be able to come up with something that could go on the press releases boasting the all-important new features critical to moving units of any new retail product.

But Apple’s problem is that the iPhone as it stands is pretty much perfect, at least as perfect as the current state of technology allows and in accordance with people’s actual requirements of a mobile smartphone. It will take a seismic shift in thinking to produce something genuinely new to simulate a whole new growth spurt – as big a shift as the one the original iPhone itself wrought on the mobile phone handset market. Does anyone have any genuinely new ideas, or have we restored equilibrium for now?

The iPad didn’t so much create a seismic shift as magic a completely new market out of thin air. The iPad now defines the tablet market; and it did so by delivering everything that people wanted out of such a device, even if they didn’t know it before they saw it. But if the iPad already does everything, and near-perfectly at that, then where does it go from here other than the odd new feature and refinement of form factor and newer chips that allow older models to be slowly dropped from support by later releases of iOS and apps to cajole people to upgrade eventually?

That’s already the reason why, when the “faster, thinner, lighter” and camera-enabled new iPad comes out, I won’t be buying – for the very simple reason that I love my current iPad and there’s no improvement I need to it. But hopefully those hold-outs who recoiled from buying a first gen product will be lining up at the checkouts and joining the club, and that’ll do very nicely for Apple’s corporate accounts in 2011.

The iPad 2 may turn out to be “the very least Apple can do” in a second generation product, but that’s likely to be more than enough.

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  1. sebcrump

    Windows mindset? Ouch! 😛

    I’ve never regretted waiting for subsequent models even with Apple – the iPod (much better capacity and better buttons); iPhone (with 3G) – which even you waited for…; iMac (nicer aluminium frame, rather than the nasty white plastic one) – again didn’t you wait for this one?

    I’m glad you don’t regret getting you iPad1, but again I’m not regretting waiting for an improved version. I too don’t expect ‘retina’ display, but think it needs to improve somewhat to compete with their own iPhone range, whether lack of improvement will prevent me from getting one or not… possibly… but the jury’s still out. I know you’ve told me the screen is fine – it’s certainly not as fine as the competition (iPhone, Kindle, etc.)

    Apple are their own worst enemy when it comes to expectation setting – there are bound to be howls of disappointments on lots of fronts when the final specs are revealed.

    In the bigger picture I think their greatest challenge is lack of Flash support, which other tablets will be including (diluting the website owners incentive to weed themselves onto the HTML5 methadone). There’s also the wildcard H.264/WebM video format spat going on with Google/Chrome – how long until that gets into YouTube? Could it be WebM with Flash fallback – rather leaving Apple/iOS out in the cold… but there’s plenty of water yet to flow under the bridge and I’m sure Apple are more than aware of that looming threat.

  2. andrewlewin

    Hopefully the main point I was making is that customers now are so brutalised and abused by poor, deeply flawed first gen products that they often take the kneejerk reaction “Oh, it looks good – but I’ll wait to the second version to buy”. We’ve both said it (I never said I wasn’t afflicted by this myself!) and that means all Apple have to do is a few nips and tucks, some rote updates, whack a ‘2’ on it and they immediately have access to this reticent expanded buyer base without having to do anything major to the product.

    That’s very different from those people who look at a product and who say “No, I don’t like it, it’s not for me, it doesn’t do X” – which are perfectly proper considerations for anyone making any purchase. If a better screen is a show-stopper for you, or the need for a camera, than that’s an entirely different matter from simply saying “Oh, I never buy first gen models.” So with that white iMac, I absolutely looked at that and thought “looks plastic, cheap and nasty” and didn’t buy; but in fact I really liked the previous anglepoise iMac as well as the subsequent aluminium model and would have been happy buying either. Similarly I’ve written about how I don’t like the new iPod nano – leaves me cold as a clumsy way of needlessly sticking touch screens onto the product – but I love my previous-gen nano.

    But that’s different from saying “I’ll wait for the next gen just … because.” Yes, you can always hold out because the next version will be smaller, thinner, faster, more storage – but the next gen will always have those incremental improvements. When do you stop waiting in that case, and jump in? Has the iPod really changed significantly in functionality even from that first gen model (save for video, which ironically new models are phasing out)? Smaller, thinner, more capacity as the years and upgrades have rolled by, yes – but fundamentally it’s the same core product doing the same basic things which hasn’t really moved on in concept despite the impressive Apple marketing that kicks in with every new model to persuade you otherwise. (Not a criticism – it’s what companies have to do.)

    Apple are by no means infallible – I criticise them all the time, as you know. The Flash spat is one self-inflicted wound, the dictatorial control over the App Store, and now the possible war with Amazon over e-book purchasing on iOS are all signs of a company that’s going over the top. But I’d be interested to know why you think they “are their own worst enemy when it comes to expectation setting” when they pointedly say nothing about the product until the launch…?

  3. sebcrump

    Yes, fair rebuttal – if it’s missing feature X/don’t like aesthetics not same as “Windows Mindset” of default v2 wait. But when it comes to software, especially system/iOS there is a pragmatic caution in not being an early adopter and we wait for reports of problems from the brave souls. I realise you’re making a hardware point, but you’re using a software analogy – are Software/Hardware analogous?

    ““are their own worst enemy when it comes to expectation setting” when they pointedly say nothing about the product until the launch…?”

    Well with so much social media and speculation/rumour that spreads so far and wide these days – as you point out at the beginning of your post – I’m wondering how much longer that approach is going to be effective and could become more harmful. OK, I’m not ‘the majority’ and I enjoy reading the rumours, in moderation. However, I fear that with Apple bineg such a huge successful company now and ‘antennagate’ last year the mainstream press are waiting more than ever to pounce on any seeming failing. So it will only take a few techies to be disgruntled by the spec of the iPad2 for the likes of Gruaniad/Auntie journos to pick up on it and from there… This, of course, would be completely unjustified – but then a lot of the coverage of antennagate was too – however, I fear it’s near inevitable and the root cause is lack of expectation management from Apple. Nothing major required, but ‘sources’ could point out lack of the availability of screens that size with quadrupal(?) the pixel density and kill rumours without actually giving away too much, surely.

    Up until now Apple have been having great success by largely over-delivering/meeting, if the balance tips to repeatedly under-delivering in the eyes of many then the mighty may fall. And as I said the spec speculation/social media effect is growing fast in a generalist way into the population as a whole, rather than being the purview of a niche of geeks.

  4. my wife needed a new lap top and one of my choices considered the ipad2. After weeks of reviewing online, as we live a 100 miles from the nearest relevant shop, I chose aniPad.
    We detest it. I loathe it with a bottomless contempt. We have had computers for 25 years, since an Amiga 500. We have a new iPod Touch fourth (bs) generation. It was very good. Yesterday we attempted to transfer 3 books from that to the 6 on the iPad. We thought we had ,and calmed ourselves down by a warm fire, yet this morning all 9 books in total were no where to be seen on the iPad. We could open iBooks on the iPod(bs)4th generation from Alpha Centauri. Then proceed to a menu represented by a wooden bookshelf, with 3 volumes on a shelf. On the Vulcanesque iPad(star trek where even steve jobs mind has’nt been) when accessing the iBook icon it did not display any books. Yet while attempting syncing and docking the device/craft of wonder to our newest i7 HP WIDOWS 7
    (IT WORKS) LAP TOP all 9 book files were apparently present…on the iPad, my PC, AND possibly the iCloud somewhere in the parallel Jobsian Universe where the Ascended Master Resides like a gaunt faced Buddha to welcome smug effete yuppies. Hours of angst and searching and argument to do something that would have taken 5 minutes on a PC and our WIFI home network.
    Apple…maybe it was the one that fell on Newtons head.
    Larry in the West Australian countryside, fighting the Apple Demons.




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